“Remember what I said,” Kudako’s quiet voice echoed back to them as he strode towards the light of the Exile Encampment. “These were Clans of old. Let me do the talking.”
SoYa shifted nervously from one foot to the other. Letting Kudako do the talking was not a problem for him. Not at all. Exactly how he got mixed up in this procession to begin with, the Athrylithcouldn’t really figure out. Something about him being one of the few Nefolian representatives who didn’t have wings.
I suppose I don’t blame them. It’s probably creepy for the old Spiral Clans to see a bunch of white haired invaders from the north flying down.
It helped a bit that Zemi was there, walking just to SoYa’s right. Aur was there as well, walking to his left. It was Aur who knew of the existence of this old Clan, claiming that these people were in exile on the fringe of the Spiral for many, many centuries.
I hope that the Clan Leader has the information that Zemi is looking for. Or else, we could be sticking our neck out for nothing.
It was especially true, SoYa knew, for the Spiral Clans of the older times. He was never quite certain why the Spiral and the Clans of the North, his ancestors, fought to begin with. History was murky in the nomadic cultures, often passed down through oral traditions. So little of it was written down. All they were left with was the common knowledge that the people of the Inner Realms were enemies of the Spiral Clans, and that the Spiral Clans often sent in Annihilators to kill and destroy.
Now, here we are. The people of the Inner Realm taking refuge within the Spiral, where we just fought to liberate them from the iron rule of their Armsmaster.
For the good of all that lived, the two peoples needed to come together. If they didn’t, then there was no chance to stand against the spread of Zeromus’ Chaotic darkness.
I just hope that’s enough to convince them.
Kudako strode forward, leading their group into the thick forested land. This was where Aur told them the exiles now lived, though SoYa pondered how the Watcher knew of it when the rest of the Spiral did not.
It took much of the afternoon to travel, both on Dragon back and by foot. Aur suggested they didn’t bring the Dragons too close to the establishment, which meant they spent the last part of their trip weaving through the thick violet forests. With the safety of good company on either side, SoYa spent a bit of the journey admiring the natural beauty of the lands.
The Spiral held a magical quality to it. No matter which direction he turned he saw heavy draping lilac trees, the soft buzz of blue glow bugs, and the way the sky lit in a rainbow hue as it passed beyond the edge of the world. The people who lived there, despite their warlike nature, were people who knew how to live in harmony with the land. Everywhere, the natural life flourished easily, plants and animals alike. All of it was so different than the Inner Realms, a land that struggled under the burden of difficult winters and rugged mountain terrain.
Craning his head back, SoYa saw the flickering lights that crowned the tall trees high above them. There was no path that pointed the way towards the Exile Encampment. The land was pure and untouched under their feet. It was only when the two shrouded figures dropped from out of nowhere that there was an indication that they’d arrived.
Though the stretching shadows made it difficult for SoYa to see many details, he could tell these men had the common features of the Spiral peoples – tall, blond hair, warrior physique. They lacked the war paint and tattoo spiral patterns that the others had, and unlike the people whom SoYa met before, there was a clear show of emotion on their faces.
Kudako approached the two men, his steps showing careful confidence. He didn’t speak a word to them. Instead, he raised his left hand, his fingers flicking in an ambiguous motion. Though SoYa didn’t know what it meant, it appeared to have some effect on the two men. Their eyes widened momentarily before they, too approached the Dragon warrior.
There was a short exchange of words. SoYa couldn’t hear what they said, but he could hear the tone of Kudako’s stern and unmoving voice. Eventually, they arrived at some sort of consensus, for the Dragon gave a brief nod over his shoulder to Zemi.
“Looks like we’re in the clear,” the Dreigiau murmured under his breath. “Let’s keep this short and to the point once we speak to the Clan Leader.”
Aur simply nodded, following without a sound.
The two Clansmen led them through glades and thickets, wandering deeper into the brush. Miraculously, there was always a passage in the forest wherever their feet led them. As SoYa peered up, he realized that they were under the limbs of many immense, ancient trees. The smooth trunks were dappled with green and gold, some as thick as the watchtowers back in Nefol.
This is amazing!
Everything felt so vibrant and alive. As if nothing else in the world, not even the darkness of Zerom, could mar it.
As SoYa squinted, he observed the subtle shapes of structures and ramps between the branches above. That’s when he realized that they were already in the Exile Encampment, and the city itself was in the trees above them. The building was so organic that if it hadn’t been for the brazen flicker of firelight, he would have overlooked it.
The Clansmen paused for a moment as something shifted along the side of the nearby tree trunk. SoYa watched as an opening came into view, revealing a narrow wooden ramp that traced a comfortable slope up along the inside of the tree itself. A few more Clansmen stood at the base, shining their weapons as they kept watch. They glanced up curiously as the group approached, but gave no resistance as they passed through.
Before SoYa knew it, the ramp led them up into the overarching branches, which sloped and twisted like broad roads far above the forest floor. It was a bit unnerving to feel so much empty space under him. The branches were smooth with centuries of passage, leading them past houselike structures as they walked.
Golden haired people — women, children and men – stopped their daily tasks to watch them pass. The Dragon, the Dreigiau, the Watcher and the Nefolian. A buzz of curiosity followed the group wherever they went, a curiosity that didn’t hold malice, not even against the Spiral’s once-enemy of the north lands.
Finally, they reached a structure that sat folded deeply within the branches of many of the intertwining trees, a place that felt like the center of the Encampment. One of the Clansmen paused, turning to address them quietly.
“Please wait here for a moment. We’ll announce your arrival and determine if the Leader will take your company at such a late hour,” he said. “We hope that it’s not inconvenient if we ask you to waylay your visit until the morning?”
“It will do,” Kudako responded. “We are at the whims of the Clan Leader and appreciate your consideration.”
The blond haired man gave a low bow and slipped through the doorway into the structure.
“Everyone is so formal around here it makes my teeth hurt,” Zemi muttered to himself.
SoYa couldn’t help but smile a little. He was thinking the same thing.
“Formality is one with self-control, Lord Zemi,” Kudako answered. “Self-control is greatly prized among those who hold the old ways.”
“And you believe that these are a people who hold on to the old ways?” a quiet, raspy voice interjected.
Kudako paused, turning to address the man who now stood in the doorway above them. He was dressed in deep hues of dark blue, purple and black. His clothes were both simple in style and ornate in detail. Tiny runes and spiral patterns traced the hem of the silken cloth wrapped around his shoulders and neck, obscuring the lower half of his face. His hair was shorter than the rest of the clans men, streaked with the silvery white of age. His blue eyes were both wise and sharp with the intensity of a bird of prey.
Kudako gave a low, respectful bow, answering quietly, “It is what we heard of your people. That you are a Clan Leader of the old ways.”
“Perhaps,” the man walked forward, studying the Dragon with a long gaze. His eyes were fixed on the strange fin ears.
I guess it’s a good thing we didn’t come in with wings wide and Dragons blazing, after all.
“Perhaps?” Kudako echoed. “Was I misinformed?”
Finally, the Leader turned and began to walk slowly back in the other direction. Despite his age, his motions were still fluid with a warrior’s grace. “There are no Clans here.”
This seemed to take the Dragon by surprise. He answered quickly, “There are always Clans.”
“Not here,” the man paused, pivoting on his heel. “Those who live here came from many different Clans to escape the Razing. The fires and blades that took our kinsmen and companions. We have no desire to relive the days of the Clans in our society.”
“The Razing. When the Armsmaster first came to power,” Kudako added grimly.
“Yes. It happened many, many centuries ago,” the Leader told him.
“I know,” the Dragon warrior answered quietly. “I was just a boy when I lost my Clan to the Razing.”
The man paused, looking over Kudako with a quizzical eye, “You? You hardly seem more than a warrior just touching his prime.”
The fin ears flicked once in response, “Appearances are sometimes deceiving. I have been in this world far longer than my form shows.”
“I see,” the Leader folded his hands behind his back, lifting his chin. “So, explain to me how it is that one who claims to be from the Old Spiral Clans returns now in such a guise? You look nothing like our people, though your manner communicates differently.”
“I served for many hundreds of years under the guidance and knowledge of the Patron Arweinydd, Zemi Dreigiau,” Kudako obliged without hesitation. He motioned once with both hands towards Zemi. “This is who I brought here today, in search of assistance and information.”
“Zemi Dreigiau,” the stern eyes had grown more whimsical. He gave a short bow in Zemi’s direction, “I have heard so much about the Lord Dragon of the North. You honor us with your presence.”
The Arweinydd bowed in return, imitating the manner of the Leader, “Thank you. We are honored with such a welcome.”
“Please, will you come in?” the man motioned towards the doorway with a more relaxed demeanor. “You should not have waited so long to introduce yourself, Lord Dragon.”
Zemi followed with a light laugh and a glance at his Dragon servant, “Well, you know how it is. When in the Spiral, do as they do. Kudako was a tad overzealous about us being on our best behavior.”
The Leader stopped in mid-step, the hand that reached for the door remained frozen in the air. He turned slowly, blue eyes sharp once again. SoYa felt a chill rush over his body at the intensity.
“Repeat that name.”
“KudakoRe,” the Dragon intoned without so much as a flinch. “Warrior and Dragon Servant to Lord Zemi Dreigiau.”
The man took a few slow, deliberate steps forward. His eyes were fixed and unblinking. Unreadable.
Then much to SoYa’s puzzlement, the Leader lifted his hand and unwrapped the cloth from across his face. The reason for the covering and the raspy voice became at once apparent – a large, jagged scar ran from one side of the Leader’s mouth, down across his neck, finally vanishing into the folds of his over tunic. Whatever blow the man took, it was obvious that he was not supposed to live through it.
Kudako stood for a long moment in silence, his golden eyes studying the revelation. The shift of expression came slowly. Painfully. A struggle to express a reaction of absolute shock. SoYa never saw the stoic warrior look so completely beside himself.
His mouth worked, struggling to find sound. When it did, Kudako uttered a solitary word, “Brother.”